DCSIMG

An answer to Benji's prayers

THE FACTS suggest that Abdessalam Benjelloun struggled throughout his loan period in Belgium. What they don't offer any hint to is why. "It's because I haven't told many people," he says. "But the first five months was a difficult time for me. The worst time."

That was at Charleroi. He left Hibs when he discovered that his football philosophies did not match those of manager Mixu Paatelainen. Seeking out regular football, instead he found himself in a new country with a whole batch of new troubles to contend with.

"The first five months were really, really bad. I had things happening that were difficult for me. First I had my divorce and then the second thing was my dad died so I think all the problems that maybe some people have to deal with over many years, I had all together in five months. Nobody really knows it but for those five months I had so many troubles in my head, I couldn't think about football, couldn't do anything, I just kept thinking about my dad and my problems and it was hard because I was not with my family in Morocco and I was not with my 'family' at Hibs."

He took the decision to switch clubs again in a bid to outrun his torment. At Roeselare things improved on the pitch and he scored six goals in 14 games but mentally he says it was still a struggle.

Back at Hibs, it was the anniversary of his father's death last week and although a day never passes without him visiting Benji's waking thoughts, this week he has even been infiltrating his dreams. It is now as soothing as it is heart-breaking, though.

"We were very close and it has been hard for me. I had left Morocco and then we found out he had throat cancer because he smoked so much. It was bad for me being over here when he was not well but at least I had my friends and the people in my Hibs family. But in Belgium I was alone." And aged just 23. "You don't think your dad will die when you are still young. I miss him but he is with me all the time in my heart and in my thoughts."

He is off to the mosque after the interview and it is there that the absence is most keenly felt but it is also where some emotional sanctuary is given. Benji's Muslim faith means everything to him and it is the reason he does not torture himself with the whys and why nots when it comes to his personal life and his career. He believes everything has been mapped out for him and is simply going with the flow and riding the blows.

"Every day I take experience and I believe in my religion because God gives you everything in your life and it is already laid out and if something doesn't happen it is because God doesn't want it to happen. There is a reason."

God obviously didn't fancy him playing in Egypt. When photos were posted on the internet of Benji posing with an Al Alhy strip in the summer it looked liked a deal had been done to sever all ties with Hibs. But the photo opportunity was premature and the clubs were unable to agree a fee. Benji was neither saddened or delighted.

"In my mind I did not think I would come back to Hibs. I liked Mixu as a gentleman but I could not play for him. We didn't think the same about football." A confidence player, who needs the assurance of the gaffer as well as the fans, he says he had not expected Paatelainen's tenure to be so short and had therefore long-since resigned himself to the fact the Leith chapter of his career was over.

Not if the form he has shown since his return is any kind of indicator. Playing in the hole as part of a four-man offensive action, he is thriving. Having regained match fitness and with the Ramadan period of fasting over with, he is bursting with the kind of energy demanded of his new gaffer John Hughes and it is just as well the Moroccan international does not blush easily. As he poses for photos at Hibs training ground, he attracts an audience from the kids involved in the school holiday programme. One or two stop to watch, then a few more until there is quite a crowd. As the numbers increase so too do the demands. "Give's a wave, Benji." "Score a goal tomorrow, Benji." "Hey Benji, score a hat-trick." "Benji, score 50!". He just smiles.

He knows the affection the Easter Road fans have for him and he would love to deliver on the requests but warns that there is now more to his team duties than finding the net. He has added tracking back to his game and smiles when talking about putting in tackles. The flair is still there but instead of blinkered runs at goal he is proving himself a more mature team player.

It is the team ethic that will need to prevail if Hibs are to maintain their early momentum. They are the team up there snapping around the heels of the Old Firm and Benji would love to see that continue but he is wary. He knows the winter months and a few dodgy pitches could wreak havoc with their style of play and much will depend on their ability to adjust. He also knows the pitfalls of a few untimely injuries or the problems caused by one or two players suffering their inevitable dip in form at the same time. But he is also enthusiastic. The idea of Hibs sustaining their challenge is not a laughable notion, he says. But it is a big ask.

One man who will drive it, though, is Yogi. In him, Benji sees the kind of football thinking intrinsic in two of his previous Hibs managers, Tony Mowbray and John Collins. Both those guys, he says, have a major piece of his heart, and if the constant bear hugs exchanged between Hughes and his player are anything to go by, there is another heartfelt relationship there.

In fact Hughes has become something of a stand-in father figure. It's a far cry from the irritation the manager was betraying following the Al Alhy debacle and as the Moroccan took his time reporting back for pre-season training. "The first time we spoke he did not even talk about the past. He talked about what he wanted to do at Hibs, how he wanted us to play and that was all. He said he had no problem with me and he knows my mind was troubled in Belgium and knows why. He talks to me every day and wants to know how I'm feeling. He listens to me. He is a very good man. He knows sometimes I have troubles but he is very good to the players. He cares about us and we love to play for him."

The smile on Benji's face does not mask the fact he is still convalescing emotionally but it does suggest that, one year on, he is coping with God's plans for him better than ever.

 
 
 

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